At a time when the nation is struggling to reel in its fiscal and physical waistlines, cutting programs that may bloat both seems like a good idea. As a result, farm subsidies — payments the federal government gives to American farmers when their profits are off — have found themselves squarely in the crosshairs.
When the federal government subsidizes a crop, farmers are enticed to grow more of it, which drives supply up and prices down. Food manufacturers buy more abundant cheap crops and thus more of them stream into the food supply. If the food happens to be unhealthy, that's a problem. Or so the argument goes.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributes $10 billion to $30 billion a year in subsidies to farmers. More than 90 percent of those subsidies go to growers of five crops: corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and cotton. Less than 1 percent goes to fruits and vegetables — precisely the foods the federal government says we need to eat more.
Corn, which reaps nearly 40 percent of the subsidies, and wheat are the most heavily subsidized. They are also staples in a variety of common, fattening, nutrition-deficient foods.
Corn is the main ingredient in high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener laced into packaged foods and sodas. Wheat gets refined into flour, a chief component of breads, bagels, processed cereals, cakes, cookies and muffins — foods nutritionists refer to as simple or "bad" carbohydrates. Both corn and wheat are heavily used to feed livestock, a leading source of saturated fats.
Subsidies also encourage farmers to focus on innovations that aid the production of those crops, making them even cheaper.
So has the government tipped the food scale in a direction that makes us fat?
Not so fast, say agricultural economists.
"I get annoyed because everyone points to farm subsidies as one of the top two reasons for the obesity epidemic, but it's irrelevant," said Julian Alston, professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis, adding that eliminating farm subsidies would have a negligible effect on obesity rates.
"If farm subsidies have contributed to America's obesity epidemic, the impact has been slight and indirect," added Richard Post, director of the Center for Nutrition Policy for the USDA, creator of the new My Plate nutrition guidelines. "Subsidies have a far smaller impact on shelf price than many Americans think."
Not all about the money
However, the Environment Working Group — a nonprofit public-health advocacy group that has been tracking and condemning farm-subsidy policy for years — sees the matter differently.
"Decades of subsidizing big grain growers have assured a cheap, steady supply of corn and wheat, which is in almost every food on the shelves," said David Degennaro, legislative analyst for the environmental group. "It has contributed indirectly to making the wrong kind of calories cheaper."
Even so, said Post, "If the price of corn went up 50 percent, the net effect would increase the cost of a box of cornflakes by 1.6 cents or a 2-liter bottle of soda by 1.9 cents. That is not likely to impact consumer behavior."
Another report shows that a 30 percent increase in the price of feed grain would raise the price of meat and poultry by 4 to 5 percent.
Such a shift could affect consumer behavior, said Lisa Powell, a senior research scientist at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at the University of Chicago. "Individuals are sensitive to food pricing."
Powell has done studies that show the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables goes up when prices go down. She's also found that food price and weight are related.
In a study she published in 2009, children's weight was sensitive to the price of fruits and vegetable, and that was particularly true for low-income children. "A 10 percent reduction in fruit and vegetable prices reduced low-income children's BMI by 1.4 percent," Powell said.
But shelf price isn't the only issue here. There's also the problem of conflicting agendas.
Subsidy programs are at odds with federal health recommendations, said Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which issued a report this year on the conflict between America's agricultural and health policies.
The new USDA dietary guidelines released in January emphasize eating more fruits and vegetables and less processed fats, meats and corn-based sweeteners. Yet the unhealthy foods are the ones that get the subsidies. "From a public-health perspective, altering these policies is key to addressing the epidemic of obesity among Americans," Barnard said.
Eliminating U.S. grain subsidies (wheat, rice and corn) would lead to each American eating about 1,000 fewer calories a year, according to a 2009 analysis published by Alston and his colleagues. That amounts to a pound lost every three and a half years, which is better than the average pound Americans gain each year.
And eliminating subsidies would likely improve the nation's economic health.
Times have changed
Farming has changed a lot since the Great Depression, when farm subsidies played a big role in helping farmers survive and families eat. "But it doesn't make sense to rely on policies we had 80 years ago," said Degennaro.
Every year since 1996, the average farmer has done better financially than the average person. "Farms fail far less often than non-farm businesses fail, so the rationale for government to continue to prop up this sector has gone away," he said.
When asked to respond, the Florida Farm Bureau refused to comment.
Although Alston doesn't believe subsidies have had much effect on Americans' health, he opposes them for financial reasons. "Propping up farmers and leaving them on the farm is not a rational economic position, because we have too many farmers. A better solution would be to help get them out of agriculture," he said.
Now would be a good time, adds Alston, because farm subsidies, which fluctuate depending on world market prices, are at record lows.
"Given the debt and America's ills," said Degennaro, "we need to make sure we're not spending money on programs that have negative consequences."
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